F.I.R.E. Summary and Review

by Dan Ward

Has F.I.R.E. by Dan Ward been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Project management is tough. You have to juggle many issues, such as budget, time frame, supplier contracts and team concerns. Luckily for you, you can refer to earlier projects to get an idea of best practices or trouble spots.

Or can you? If you’re working on a truly innovative project, this might be difficult – you and your team may be going where no one else has gone before. Other projects might be interesting but not helpful; where, then, can you turn for guidance to keep budgets trim and deadlines met?

This book summary are your guide to managing innovative projects on deadline and under budget. They’ll show you how to carry your project to success, by following just a few rational and logical guidelines.

In this summary of F.I.R.E. by Dan Ward, you’ll discover

  • when “stormdraining” can be more useful than brainstorming;
  • how borrowing technology keeps NASA projects on time and under budget; and
  • why a US fighter jet project missed engaging the Soviet “threat” by a good decade.

F.I.R.E. Key Idea #1: The F.I.R.E. method gets you high-quality results in the fastest, most efficient way possible.

When you head a creative project, plenty of challenges will come your way. Luckily, there’s a fail-safe method that innovative project managers can use to stay on track, and it’s called F.I.R.E.

F.I.R.E. stands for Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant. Everyone can use the F.I.R.E. method to improve their processes and achieve their goals.

Make your project fast by dividing it into smaller tasks that can be completed quickly. Big projects often drag, and sometimes it’s hard to feel you’re making progress. When you design for yourself a smaller group of shorter tasks, you can focus on each task one at a time, and set clear, achievable deadlines.

This means you have to stick firmly to a schedule, however. And being fast isn’t just about working quickly – you have to focus as well on quality. If you work quickly but sloppily, you’ll only create more work for yourself further down the line. In the end, you won’t really have saved much time.

Keep your project inexpensive by maintaining a small budget, and aim to solve problems with your smarts before throwing money at them. Inexpensive doesn’t mean cheap, however – it’s about efficiency. Learn to make the most out of what you have.

Being restrained is about staying in control. When you’re restrained, you don’t allow unexpected circumstances to determine the direction in which your project heads. Instead, you control the situation by holding regular meetings, maintaining short schedules, organizing small teams and keeping a tight budget.

Finally, being elegant is about focusing on simplicity. Remember: less is more. Simple projects, if done correctly, are better than complicated ones, as they’re easier to work on and ensure high-quality results.

F.I.R.E. Key Idea #2: To solve a specific problem, first work on generalizing the problem to identify your general needs.

Often when you have a question, you “ask” Google. And in turn, the Google search engine provides you with a host of answers, whether you’re looking to lose weight, fix a stove or consider space flight.

How does Google do this? The company’s engine simply searches through the tons of research stored online, considering the millions of questions that have already been answered. Innovation works the same way; you just need to know what to search for.

To find a solution to a specific problem, however, the first thing you need to do is generalize it. Here’s another handy method to help you do this.

TRIZ is an acronym that describes a Russian method of inventive problem-solving. This method explains how any technical problem can be solved in four steps.

First, you identify your specific problem. Second, you generalize it. Third, you find a general solution to the general problem. Fourth, you use the general solution to develop a specific solution to your specific problem. That’s TRIZ!

Let’s say you’re trying to design a larger engine for a more powerful airplane. You want the plane to fly further and higher, but it can’t lift off properly because it’s now heavier. That’s your specific problem.

Next, you focus on generalizing your problem, which in this case, would be a problem of the plane’s power-to-weight ratio. Once you find a general solution that addresses this, you can figure out how to apply this general solution to the design of your specific plane.

When solving problems, you should also identify your needs. It’s not always obvious what resources you have and which new resources you might need to complete your task.

If you’re trying to design a plane engine, you probably have tons of different materials available to you – but which ones would work the best? Once you identify that you need a lighter material, you can focus your efforts on finding it.

F.I.R.E. Key Idea #3: Avoid racking up extra costs and annoying delays by sticking to a set schedule and a limited budget.

Have you ever tried to experiment with a favorite recipe, changing details here or there, and ended up with something you had to throw out? Sometimes it’s best to stick to the original recipe.

Innovative projects can work the same way. When you have a time frame and a budget, try not to deviate from your plan, as you’ll just trip yourself up if you decide along the line to complicate things.

In 1981, US engineers began work on the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet, an advanced piece of machinery conceived to fight Soviet technology. The project however was completed in December 2005 – years after the Soviet Union had collapsed.

So what happened with the project?

The F-22 project ran into trouble in 1989 when designers extended the deadline for its completion by six months. They wanted the fighter jet to be “perfect,” so they kept tweaking features, and in the process, adding more costs and further delays.

As a result, the project kept changing to accommodate the added functions, and delays eventually snowballed until the project was a good ten years late.

You can avoid this! Stick firmly to a schedule and budget once they are set. Don’t aim to include every possible feature in a product or project. Try to make something that solves your particular problem, or your project will become irrelevant, just like the F-22.

While designers toiled on the soon-to-be-useless F-22, another invention surpassed it: the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or as we know it today, the drone.

A drone embodies the F.I.R.E. method: it is fast, inexpensive, restrained and elegant.

The drone project succeeded where the F-22 failed because the project as a whole was focused on answering a specific question in a short time period and on a limited budget. The Dragon Eye drone, for instance, only has one function: surveillance. It is also inexpensive; a Dragon Eye can be produced for roughly $60,000.

F.I.R.E. Key Idea #4: NASA missions focus on simplifying and accelerating projects, innovating only when necessary.

When you hear the word “innovation,” you might assume it describes something complicated and expensive. That’s not necessarily the case, however. The US space agency NASA shows why.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has launched many innovative missions, given its dedication to simplifying and accelerating projects.

In 1999, for instance, NASA began a spacecraft project called Stardust, aiming to collect particles from the tails of comets in the galaxy and to bring them back for study.

NASA set a tight schedule and budget for Stardust, and completed it on time and under budget, for some million dollars less than what the team had been allocated.

How did they achieve such success? The Stardust team had a clear set of mission requirements, and members focused on the three most important tasks: encounter the comet; collect 1,000 particles; and bring the particles back home.

There were other goals (such as photographing the comet) but these goals were merely desirable – meaning they were secondary to the project’s three main goals.

The success of Stardust also illustrates the importance of focusing innovation to specific needs.

NASA could have built all the elements of the Stardust project from scratch, but the team decided to keep things simple. Project manager Ken Atkins cut costs by using tools developed for previous missions. Stardust’s Motorola Radio, for instance, was originally designed for the 1998 Mars Surveyor mission.

Using established solutions allowed the team to focus efforts on developing tools they didn’t have. In fact, the only real innovation that came from the project was a material for collecting particles, called aerogel. The rest of the project creatively used innovations from the past!

F.I.R.E. Key Idea #5: When it comes to true innovation, less is always more.

Imagine how awkward it would be to wear every piece of clothing you own. It’s nearly impossible, and even if you did succeed, you’d just look ridiculous.

One shirt, one pair of pants: it’s better to keep things simple.

Innovation is the same. You are guaranteed to stumble if you insist on too much of it for yourself or your project. Keeping it simple doesn’t just look better, however; it’s cheaper and faster, too.

Google’s Chromebook is a good example of this. The laptop comes with only the most commonly used Google features, like searching the internet or using Google Drive.

While Google could have outfitted its laptop with every feature it offers, it would have just cost the company more money and taken more time to develop. A few extra features weren’t enough to justify costs and delays.

Finding the right balance of complexity is called stormdraining. Stormdraining is the opposite of brainstorming: it’s about letting go of concepts or features that don’t provide significant benefit to your project.

To stormdrain, you locate the midpoint between simplicity and complexity; and this point will vary depending on the project. Start by removing one feature from your product at a time. If the system still works, take out another piece. Keep going until you can’t strip any more features and still have a functioning product.

This process takes time and creativity, but it’s much more efficient than building a product that is unnecessarily complex and expensive!

So remember to be critical of your project – get rid of anything that eats up resources and doesn’t provide significant reward. Focus your efforts on developing the tools and products you really need.

In Review: F.I.R.E. Book Summary

The key message in this book:

Effective innovation is about focusing energy and resources on your most important tasks. You need to work fast, keep your project inexpensive and stay on track by restraining your budget and time frame. Aim to produce something elegant, not something overly complex. When you streamline your efforts with the F.I.R.E. method, you won’t just finish your project on time, you’ll produce something of higher quality, too.